Mr Bernard Jenkin MP is correct to highlight in his November column that there are many opportunities for the UK fishing industry, in particular the inshore fishing fleet, for a new era of UK marine management in light of Brexit. However, the narrative that he portrays that the misfortune of European fish stocks, and the associated economic losses for British fishermen, is a fault of the European Union is not entirely grounded in truth. I will respond to Mr Jenkin’s piece in three parts, first by examining the role of the British government and its fishing industry in the historical mismanagement of fisheries prior to the UK joining the EU and the generally successful role of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in the recovery of those poorly managed fish stocks, next by examining what political decisions have really held back inshore fishing fleets as well as the communities that depend on them, and finally by considering the “opportunity” narrative of Brexit.
It is certainly a widespread view within the fishing industry that the EU is to blame for their economic woes. Catch and abundance data clearly demonstrates that most European fish stocks were already overfished and yet catch effort for these stocks was still increasing when the Common Fisheries Policy was established in 1983. For North Sea cod as an example, prior to collective management through the EU, annual landings from all states were at least 200,000t in most years from 1967-83. In that same period scientists assessed that the total spawning stock was between 150-250,000t in most years. Even assuming a simple fisheries prediction of taking 50% of adult stock approaches the maximum sustainable yield it is clear that state-based management led to dangerous overfishing and by the mid to late 1980s the collapse of North Sea cod.
It was first in the late 1970s when landings by UK vessels experienced a sharp decline due to the Iceland cod wars and then again in the 1980s to late 90s when the significant economic impacts caused by the poor management of other North Sea stocks by individual state governments, allowing their fleets to heavily overfish, began to hit communities all over the UK and Europe. Throughout this period, the EU got a bad name with fishermen through decommissioning schemes and zero catch allowances in order to help fisheries recover. Unlike the narrative Mr Jenkin is trying to portray the EU quota-based management system that started from 1983 has in fact led to the recovery (also see here) of most of our quota managed stocks in EU waters despite strong lobbying from individual states and industry to maintain high quotas. This is particularly the case in NE Atlantic and North Sea stocks such as cod, haddock, plaice and sole. The documented history of recovery of fish stocks from quota management is one issue on which scientists and many fishermen agree, but it seems to have passed unnoticed by some politicians in Westminster.
But just because most stocks are now growing in size does not mean that the CFP is perfect. Fisheries science is not perfect as we do not know enough about all of our fish stocks, evidence led policy is not perfect as recommendations by scientists are often compromised by both UK and EU ministers due to political pressures and lobbying from industry, and it is also the case the many fish species not managed by quota are still declining (most Mediterranean and southern EU stocks do not have quota management). An example important to Mersea fishermen would be sea bass, where control measures to reduce EU wide catch have only come about since 2013 when it was already heavily overfished by all nations and a catch limit only came into place in 2015. A quota based approach is long overdue for sea bass, and there are opportunities to introduce this while supporting inshore fisheries.
In summary, quota-based management and associated stock recoveries has led to recent year on year increases in revenues for the UK fisheries sector to £682 million contribution to GDP in 2016. So while Mr Jenkin states that “The CFP has also failed through its quota system and other initiatives, to effectively manage fish stocks” – this is simply not true. While it could be said the CFP quota negotiations are not ideal, perfect or indeed flawed due to their political nature – for example the UK is one of the nations that walks away from CFP negotiations with quotas set way above the levels recommended by ICES scientists – it is clear that had anyone in Westminster or elsewhere in Europe taken the initiative to start shared international quota discussions earlier much hardship could have been avoided for UK fishermen and their families.
Mr Jenkin goes onto discuss the role of the EU in the demise of the UK inshore fishing fleet. This is an issue particularly close to my heart and working with the fishermen of Lowestoft and Mersea it is frustrating to hear this simple but untrue narrative that their demise lies with the EU. It is certainly true that in managing the complicated balance to conserve stock and bycatch species that comes with mixed species inshore fisheries, the EU issues many technical and catch limit measures that affect the inshore fleet. These include limiting catch of bass when fishing for plentiful cod, or limiting catch of blonde ray when fishing for plentiful thornback ray. These species specific catch limit measures have conservation in mind but can close down inshore boat activities as it is too easy to catch the conservation species quota even with selective fishing like long lines.
These are the “one size fits all” rules Mr Jenkin complains about and it is true they are frustrating – but they would not be as frustrating if the UK government adequately supported the inshore fleet with an appropriate quota. It is not the EU that decides how to allocate the UK’s quota between different vessels, indeed DEFRA does this through a variety of mechanisms, but mostly dependent on historical catch records. As inshore vessels never had to record their catch this biased against them. It is important to note that the larger quotas to larger vessels allows them to target the big offshore bounties that make significant contributions to the total GDP UK fishing generates. Based on these two factors, catch records and national GDP, many decisions by the UK have been made that are of little benefit to the majority of UK coastal towns. An example is allowing UK quota in Lowestoft to be bought by overseas companies. Now North sea plaice are recovering this UK-based decision seems particularly short sighted. This decision has devastated the Lowestoft port and its community. So while UK fishing industry revenues are growing again the profits are going to a small number of larger offshore vessels and companies that own large shares of high value stocks (e.g. whitefish and pelagics). The UK currently distributes less than 2% of its quota to inshore fishing vessels although by number they are more than 75% of the boats. It would of course hit the total profitability of the sector to shift more of the UK quota to the smaller less effective inshore fleet, but this would greatly improve the regional economics of small coastal towns and have a tangible effect on marine conservation as these smaller boats can fish in a way that has much less impact on the marine environment (e.g. long lines, gill nets, pots and light dredges). Other UK decisions have had extremely negative effects on Essex fishermen, the mainstay of the Mersea fleet for example has been the Thames sole fishery and here too it was decisions in London that permitted large scale dredging of sole spawning habitats which has devastated the recruitment of this species.
It is very much a pre-EU overfishing and an issue of quota distribution within the UK fleet and poor marine habitat protection that has led to the demise of the UK inshore fleet – this fleet can be both ecologically and economically sustainable as long as Westminster-based ministers would decide to act. Clearly these UK Government decisions could have been taken decades ago, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit or “regaining control” as Mr Jenkin alludes.
I want to end on a high. Bernard Jenkin is a friend of the University of Essex and I thank him for his recent support. However rewriting history to pin a narrative of UK fisheries decline on the EU, while a simple story to tell, is demonstrably false. While many academics are passionate “remainers”, we are also passionate about good policy and governance and we will fight for it for the good of UK society. It has therefore been a welcome few weeks where environment secretary Michael Gove has been sending all the right messages of the importance of biodiversity and independent environmental oversight post Brexit, where Richard Benyon and Boris Johnson have been asking us all to #Backthebluebelt. They have reminded us that including our overseas territories the UK has the 5th largest marine estate and the UK should be leaders in marine and fisheries management. Finally it has been welcome to hear many NGOs, campaigners and academic policy pushers explore potential shifts in the UK quota management system to address the historical bias against out smaller inshore vessels. So there are indeed many issues to be positive about the UK marine sector, and while Brexit does bring challenges to fishing in the UK, Brexit is yet another opportunity for us all to get good policy in place for fishing to thrive.
Dr Tom C Cameron
School of Biological Sciences
University of Essex
PS…..Bernard thank you for your support of the Essex MCZ in the December column!